Should Manu Ginobili Be Playing or Resting?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

It’s no secret Manu has struggled so far this season. After back spasms kept him out of the first two games, he returned but hasn’t looked like himself. That has led to a lot of people, including huge Manu fans like myself, to believe that sitting out a few more games until he’s fully healed might benefit both Ginobili and the team. With that in mind, I decided to have a little discussion about it with J. Gomez, who is firmly entrenched in the “Manu should play his way into shape” camp.

J.R. Wilco

You can go first, but first it must be said that no one loves Manu more than I do. Others may love him AS MUCH, but none more. Ok, with that out of the way, I'll let you lead off.

J. Gomez

Manu is undeniably playing terribly right now. No one is saying otherwise. Discrepancies seem to exist as to why and how the Spurs should handle the situation. Aaron broke down the stats on his post so I won't rehash them but it seems Manu is actually a net negative so far, with his turnovers and lack of long range efficiency hurting the team. Some, and I think you might be a part of that group, from your comments, seem to believe it's a sign that he's old and broken down. Now, I know how much you love Manu so I know how much it sucks to see him like this but there is no evidence this will be a permanent state for Manu. If you look at his Olympics performance, you'll see that a few months ago, the guy dominated a high level competition. So my question to you is this: what about Manu's play makes you think he is showing signs of getting old instead of just considering it an injury induced slump?

J.R. Wilco

You know that I have been looking for an opportunity to have this kind of exchange with you, ever since I realized that we had never done one before. And as soon as well it appeared that we were on different sides in this discussion, I got all excited for a really good, passionate, energetic exchange. Please don't tell me that I got my hopes raised over nothing, because it seems like our points of view you aren't very different after all. See, I don't think that think Manu is showing signs of getting old, my comments were more to the point that he was playing like he was old. And those two things are miles apart in my mind.

What we're currently seeing from Manu, this is what I'm afraid it will look like when he is old, which he's not. Really. He's really not. (I keep telling myself.)

J. Gomez

Fair enough. And I'm no stranger to repeating that mantra myself. But what does it mean "he's playing like he's old"? He's shooting terribly from outside but he's getting to the rim consistently (2 shot attempts per game), getting himself to the line (5.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes) and creating for others (27.8 assist percentage). If that's what we are going to see from Manu when he's old (in like 10 years), then sign him up long term now.

I may be off base here but what I'm not seeing from Manu is that magic. Those impossible plays. That could be the reason some seem to really hate watching Manu play like he's playing right now. He hasn't looked superhuman so far and that may be what is causing your "Manu looks old" view. It might be better to say "Manu looks human". Is that more accurate?

JRW

You're getting somewhat closer, to be sure, but it's still not exactly what I'm getting at. Give me all of the statistics there are, to prove that Manu's still being effective, and I will nod and point to the the play against the Knicks with four minutes to go in the first quarter, when Jason Kidd, who is currently about 65 years old, went around Manu and scored right at the bucket. When have you ever seen that happen before? That does not come from being out of sync or lacking timing. And it's not like he was giving up those kinds of drives against Kobe on Tuesday, because when Bryant was posting him up, Manu did a terrific job of staying with him and even challenging the shot. But that's not what happened on Thursday, and that's why I want to see him resting, instead of watching him play the way he's playing.

J. Gomez

You point to that play and I'll point out his defense on the not 65-year-old-and-pretty-athletic J.R. Smith to finish the 1st quarter. He denied him the ball and hounded him. Then to start the second quarter he forced him baseline to the big man. I'm actually re-watching the Knicks game as I'm writing this and in the first half, Manu looked decent. Excepting that play against Kidd, his defense looks solid -not great, but certainly passable- and he was moving the ball. He missed his shots and his passes were not crisp, but he wasn't a sieve on defense and a train wreck on offense.

I believe his back is good enough to play but probably still bothers him. I did notice that his stance is a little upright at times but I don't see him struggle that much. Of course, I know in the second half he doesn't look as good, but from what I'm watching right now (4:25 to go in the second quarter) he's been OK.

It seems some would like him to play less or sit until he's 100% fine. Where do you fall in this issue? Should Manu continue to play his 25 minutes a game or should Pop limit his time or sit him once Neal returns?

JRW

I love the fact that you're watching the game as we go through this exchange, because I'm doing the exact same thing. And that play that you mentioned where Manu defends Smith, well there's one just like it at the end of the first quarter, and he defends just fine (with that upright stance that you mentioned) until Smith elevates to shoot his jumper and Manu just stands there lifting a completely ineffective arm as a token of his defense. That is what I mean by playing old, not being fit enough to scrap and jump and dig and try for all that he's worth while he's out there. That's the way Manu has always played, but it's not what we're seeing now and it leads me to believe that he's not healthy enough to play.

Look at his assists from Thursday's first quarter: he brings up the ball in transition and finds Kawhi Leonard alone in the corner for a three-pointer, he uses a Tiago Splitter screen to force a rotation and passes to a wide-open Patty Mills for a three-pointer. These plays point to his mind still being there, but nothing more. There was no athleticism required to make these plays, just the knowledge of the system and the ability to read the defense.

As to where I come down on the question of whether to sit Manu or play him, Thursday's game is what turned me from the "play him" partisan to a staunch "rest him" advocate. I agree that he's had a beautiful play or two this year (that one at the beginning of the 2nd quarter where he drove baseline and scored with an acrobatic layup is honestly the only one I can recall) but they're too few, far between, and scattered in among any number of plays that point to him being something short of 100%, but also a long way from being right.

J. Gomez

I guess it all comes down to "is he going to make the injury worse by playing?" for me. As much as I like it when Manu is playing great, I have no problem suffering through a couple of cringe-worthy games if it means he gets his rhythm back faster. Because I believe a lack of rhythm and not athleticism is what's killing him right now.

Both in this game against the Knicks and in the past few contests, Manu has thrown passes that are either a little long or a little short; if he hadn't he would have even more assists. He's been getting to the rim almost as much as last season and finishing better. His defense looks worse and I would grant that he doesn't look as athletic there yet, but the other parts of his game look similar to me; not exactly the same yet, but similar. All that's missing is his timing and confidence. And that will only come back if he actually plays.

Since we are both watching the Knicks game, let me use Tiago as an example. He was looking really, really bad out there against 70-year-old Rasheed Wallace. He looked slow and stiff and then all of a sudden he strung together a couple good possessions and then he couldn't miss and was defending well. Who's to say Manu doesn't hit his shots tonight and makes a couple of nice passes? I honestly believe that's all he's missing: a couple of good plays in a row to get his confidence and timing back and we'll see the same Manu from last season. But maybe I'm in denial. What do you think? Is it even possible for Manu to have a great game in his current condition?

JRW

I understand his need to play in order to find his rhythm, and I'm sure the training staff would not have him out there if they thought he was going to make the injury worse. But those "cringe-worthy games," as you called them, while necessary, could have a tendency to hurt the team if his minutes aren't properly managed.

And here's the point where I have to talk about the sequence in the fourth quarter of Thursday's game that, for me, really cinched the idea that he shouldn't be out there in crunch time right now, and maybe should be rested entire games until he's sound. With just under two minutes left in the game, and the Spurs clinging to a one point lead, Manu worked a pick and roll with Tim Duncan and forced a bad pass that ended up in the hands of the inarguably-aged Jason Kidd. Manu hurried back on defense and New York worked the ball around to a wide-open JR Smith at the three-point line, and Ginobili didn't even run out to him to put pressure on the shot. Bucket. Knicks by one. On the very next possession, Manu passes up not one, not two, but three different shots he regularly takes and makes, to finally pass the ball to Leonard in the corner. Result: shot-clock violation, Pop pulls Manu from the game, and New York cruises from there.

Right now, I think you're in denial, my friend. That's not to say that Manu will continue to hurt the team going forward, but it happened once. I think that's undeniable.

As to whether it's possible for him to have a great game right now, all I have to remember is his performance in the third game of the Western Conference Finals of 2008 against the Lakers when he was playing on one ankle, and still managed to lead the Spurs to their only victory in the series with 30 points on 9-15 shooting, 5-7 from deep. That said, it was only one game, and besides those points, he contributed almost nothing else - two rebounds and one assist. So, while possible, I wouldn't want you to hold your breath waiting for it.

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